In 2011, protests swept across the Middle East and Northern Africa in what was known as the Arab Spring. The spark that lit the bonfire was a Tunisian man, Mohamed Bouazizi, who set himself on fire in protest at the police confiscating his goods.
Bouazizi sold produce out of his wheelbarrow as a street vendor. For years the police had allegedly targeted and mistreated him. Despite this, he continued to sell his produce because he had no other way to make a living.
On December 16, 2010, Bouazizi borrowed $200 to acquire the goods he would sell the following day. The next morning Bouazizi made his way to his normal spot and began selling his goods.
A few hours later, the police showed up and began to harass him once again. The disagreement was due to the police claiming he did not have the necessary permit to sell goods, despite the rules being unclear whether one is required to carry out street vending in Tunisia.
With his goods confiscated, Bouazizi was $200 in debt, and unable or unwillingly to bribe the police to give him his goods back, he took matters into his own hands. He went to his city’s governor’s office to complain.
The governor refused to see, or listen to Bouazizi. It’s at this point that he was reported to have said: “If you don’t see me, I’ll burn myself.” After his failed attempt to speak to the governor, he went to a local gas station, bought a can of gasoline, and returned to the office.
Bouazizi stood in the middle of traffic outside the office and shouted the following words: “How do you expect me to make a living?" He then poured the can of gasoline over himself, lit a match, and set himself on fire, less than an hour after the original altercation with the police.
The repercussions of the seemingly innocuous act by the police were profound. Bouazizi’s self-immolation inspired protestors in Tunisia and the government was overthrown on January 14, 2011.
Soon, the protests spread to other parts of the Arab world, with protestors in Syria, Oman, Yemen, and Morocco rushing to the streets. By late January, the unrest had reached Egypt and on January 25, 2011, a huge protest erupted in Tahir Square in Cairo calling for the removal of President Hosni Mubarak.
With the protests in full swing, the eyes of the world were on the Middle East. You might have thought that if you were a major brand, it would be a good time to stay from trying to financially benefit from the crisis.
One company had other ideas.
Ill-Timed and Ill-Judged
A week after the demonstrations in Cairo on February 3rd, Kenneth Cole, an American clothing designer, posted the following tweet.
You don’t need me to tell you just how insensitive this tweet is. It’s incredible it was even sent, considering Bouazizi’s self-immolation which caused the protests. Yet, someone, maybe Kenneth himself, decided it was a good idea to try and use the political unrest as an opportunity to advertise.
The idea backfired quickly. Unsurprisingly, the tweet was called out by Twitter users with many furious at his lack of awareness over what was happening. In a way that only Twitter can, his tweet also inspired a parody account and several tweets mocking his gaffe.
It wasn’t long before Cole and his company rowed back on their initial tweet with an apology. In a tweet, the company stated: “Re Egypt tweet: we weren’t intending to make light of a serious situation. We understand the sensitivity of this historic moment -KC.”
As the tweets were signed KC, it suggests that they were sent by the designer himself. This calls into question whether it’s a good idea to let the owner have direct access to a company’s social media accounts. Don’t forget this was back in 2011. Nine years later in a world that is more polarised than ever, it’s probably even more imperative companies and their owners are measured when it comes to commenting on social issues.
Amazingly, this wasn’t Kenneth’s first, or last, incident of this manner. Following the 9/11 terrorist attacks, he said the following to the New York Daily News: “Important moments like this are a time to reflect… To remind us, sometimes, that it’s not only important what you wear, but it’s also important to be aware.”
You might have thought Kenneth would have learned his lesson after these two gaffes. You’d be wrong. His tweet in 2013, regarding the crisis in Syria, revealed that he had lost none of his ability for putting his foot firmly in his mouth. He tweeted the following:
“Boots on the ground” or not, let’s not forget about sandals, pumps and loafers. #Footwear
Kenneth wasn’t the first, and he won’t be the last, public figure to make a gaffe during political and social unrest. In an age of widespread social media use, his tweets show us how important it is for companies to measure what they say online.
It’s tempting to try and advertise during a crisis, but if you get it wrong, the fallout can be damaging to your brand. Dolce & Gabbana found this out when they offended a whole country in a series of adverts.
Marketing is an art. It’s normal to push the boundaries of what’s acceptable and what’s not, but there is always a line. Sometimes, it’s not worth crossing that line because the damage can be lasting. It’s hard to build trust, even harder to gain it back once you’ve lost it.
They say any news is good news. Kenneth Cole’s ill-timed tweets show us that in marketing, it’s not always a good thing. Considering the circumstances that led to Bouazizi setting himself on fire, Kenneth’s tweet is even more brazen. One man was trying to sell his produce but was unable to, while another was trying to sell his products based on a protest sparked by a tragedy.
This incident shows us that if you run a big brand maybe you should leave the social media marketing to your employees, rather than do it yourself. Humour is a brilliant way to connect with your audience, but if it’s ill-timed and insensitive, you can end up with egg on your face.